Silence in the car, this feeling of reverence perhaps for the cool clear afternoon. Not much was said. Just sat, staring out of the window, past the still-standing stage from independence celebrations, past the diligent Japanese engineers (wearing their UN blue helmets like no other peacekeeping force), past the Timor police shooting range, past the deserted junction at Tibar wear the indonesians used to search every car leaving Dili. Over numerous gray-gravel riverbeds. A blur of palm trees, palm-thatch huts, lined up bottles of tua palm wine, Xanana posters and dusty football fields. Everything crisp and dry. The hills coming closer and receding from the road, and the green layer above in the mountain interior. The sea also teases, coming up right to the road in parts, and then receding behind 10m tall mangroves and mudflats.

The moment one leaves Dili there is this strange heightening of the senses, one begins to truly see things, notice people and children. The clothes are more worn and dirty. The dirt is truer, not that flithy lint-colored kind in the gutters and streets of Dili. It’s redder, deeper, more seeping. More biological.

Looking at the variety of trees, picked over for firewood and fruit, I realize that I know very little about the biology of this place. I recognize that the landscape is far more “australian” – red earth and eucalypts – than one would expect for a tropical island. There is a diversity of different palm trees, short squat ones with big fan-shaped leaves that fall about, big tall coconut palms, and a combination of the two. There are large banyan trees creating shade with their hanging natty hair. There are all kinds of other trees like the one will beautiful softgreen fronds, that flowers red in November, in time for all souls day and the commemoration of the Santa Cruz massacre.

And the birds, which have been said to have been decimated by napalm and over-hunting during the resistance, survived. There are tawny-reddish hawks with meter-wide wingspans, seen in the hills near the water, taking advantage of the coastal thermals. Various smaller cousins, and dove-related birds. Then the seabirds, with their beautiful long necks and feet.

The tide was extraordinarily low due to the full moon yesterday, and people were out on the normal covered coastal flats, poking around for stranded crabs and fish with the egrets. The day was a fortuitous, and not that “Saturday” means anything to the people living there, but there was a feeling of leisure and enjoyment in the groups of waders. Children, older men, women, everybody was involved, with a feeling of free, individual and social aspect to the collection.

After winding around curves between the hills and the ocean for maybe half an hour, we decided on a beach that probably had enough water to swim. We climbed across the rocks to a small cove with deeper water. We were still barely floating above old corals and sea plants in the low tide. Towards the end of the day a group of dolphins passed, swimming fast on to better fishing area.

There was nothing stunning about the day. It was just clear, cool, and calm. A tremendous sense of calm. The car was equally quiet on the return. We just sat and watched the same scenery go by, with very open eyes. The shadows and light in the harbor at Tibar, the way the water below was already in shadow, and light came across the red hills above, against the purple clouds above, this was silent.

I realize that I’m not interested in “studying” the people or the way of life here. I’m not particularly capable of helping people create buffers from the same wavering poverty that they have always known. More than anything I would like to appreciate this current moment. Appreciate the small moments of peace, the peace that people feel in their lives at the present. The peace that they may receive by recounting the past. The peace they may receive by merely being. Maybe that is too selfish; maybe Timor has made me more selfish. But I think it has just made me think more about the value of life, the value of freedom to decide, the value of the privileges I was born with.


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